WASHINGTON – President Bush chose Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (search) on Monday to head the Environmental Protection Agency (search), turning to another Republican governor to be his voice on an issue where his standing with voters is weak.
Leavitt, a three-term governor who favors giving states a bigger role in environmental regulation, would succeed Christie Whitman (search), a former New Jersey governor who resigned in May.
"Mike Leavitt will come to the EPA with a strong environmental record, a strong desire to improve what has taken place in the last three decades," Bush said in Denver after spending a day promoting his plan for thinning forests to prevent wildfires.
The EPA post has been a lightning rod for critics of the administration's environmental policies. Whitman resigned after 2 years in which she sometimes butted heads with White House and other administration officials who saw energy development as a bigger priority.
Bush said Leavitt "understands the importance of clear standards in every environmental policy."
"He respects the ability of state and local government to meet those standards, he rejects the old ways of command and control from above," the president said.
Leavitt said he would seek consensus when tackling environmental issues that often ignite passions and strong disagreement in Washington.
"There is no progress polarizing at the extremes but great progress when we collaborate in the middle," he said, promising to improve the nation's air quality. "I'll leave it a better place than I found it. ... I'll give it my all."
Leavitt said he shares Bush's enthusiasm for technological approaches for improving the environment but also recognizes that with environmental matters there is often "an economic imperative that we're dealing with in the global economy and that's to do it less expensively."
If confirmed by the Senate, he will take office at a time when Democrats hold a 2-1 advantage over Bush when people are asked who they trust to do a better job on the environment, according to a recent poll.
Industry groups and congressional Republicans lined up behind Bush's choice, while environmental groups and Senate Democrats were immediately opposed or at least skeptical.
Leavitt, 52, has championed the idea of increasing environmental cooperation among federal, state and local officials. The environmental issues he has focused on have mostly concerned public lands -- experience that would seem more suited to running the Interior Department than the EPA.
Over the objections of environmentalists, he advocated a major highway extension through wetlands and wildlife habitat near the Great Salt Lake. The 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals halted the project, saying the Army Corps of Engineers did not pay enough attention to wildlife or look at alternatives before approving it.
As governor, Leavitt has made several environmental arrangements with the Bush administration, most recently settling a long-standing dispute over ownership of roads across federal land. He has also negotiated several exchanges of state and federal land, some of them questioned by Interior Department auditors.
Administration officials described Leavitt, the nation's longest serving governor, as a leader on environmental issues with a record of improving air and water and conserving land. He has been co-chairman of the Western Regional Air Partnership, bringing together states, tribes, environmentalists and industry to address the problem of brown haze over the Grand Canyon.
He also fought against plans to build a temporary storage facility for high-level nuclear waste on an Indian reservation in western Utah.
Larry Young, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said Leavitt has a long history of coming across as a moderate.
"But when it comes to the way he plays the game it's anything but moderate," Young said. "That's true on public lands, wetlands conservation, sprawl issues. It's an appointment that fits right in line with the Bush administration record. You're not going to see any dramatic improvement. It's business as usual."
Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said Leavitt is more hostile to government regulations than most governors, and like Whitman is a reputed moderate, "but unlike her, he has taken a hard right turn on the environment."
Bush has scheduled three more trips this month with environmental themes -- another on his "Healthy Forest Initiative" in Oregon, one on preserving national parks in California and one on salmon habitat in Washington state.